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Sudan Tribune

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Ethiopia, UK agree not to endanger hostages’ safety

March 12, 2007 (ADDIS ABABA) — Ethiopia’s prime minister today said Ethiopia and United Kingdom had agreed to refrain from saying or doing anything that could jeopardize the safety of the hostages.

Speaking to the press, Meles Zinawi said his government would do nothing that jeopardizes the security of the five Europeans abducted in one of the country’s most remote, inhospitable regions, Afar Regional State. He further said that the government is closely working with the British government on the issue.

Zenawi said his officials have a “good idea” of the whereabouts of the five, all of whom worked for or were relatives of employees of the British Embassy in Ethiopia, and that their captors had made no demands.

“I hope and expect they will be released at the earliest opportunity,” Meles said in his first public comments on the kidnapping since they were seized 12 days ago. “This is a group of people who have not done anything to hurt anybody. I think this may have been a mistake on the part of the individuals (captors) involved.”

The hostages, three British men, an Anglo-Italian and a French woman, were on a tourist trip to the remote Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia when they were taken captive. They were seized at gunpoint with 13 Ethiopians. Five of the Ethiopians are believed to have escaped or been released.

They were “at the wrong place at the wrong time,” the prime minister added.

“All I can say at the moment is we have a pretty good idea where these people are. We do not have any specific demand from any of the personalities involved,” he added.

“Nobody has so far claimed responsibility. To some extent that might be a positive thing.”

Their Toyota Land Cruiser and a Land Rover Discovery, which had diplomatic plates, were discovered on March 5 riddled with bullet holes and grenade shrapnel.

The 4x4s still contained the victims’ luggage, as well as shoes and mobile phones, when they were found in Hamedali, the last staging post before the region’s famous salt lakes. The items found inside suggested robbery was not a motive.

Meles refused to go into details on where the hostages were being held, saying he did not want to jeopardize their safety.

“So far they are safe and well. I expect that they will be kept safe and well.”

While the region’s ancient salt mines and volcanoes offer a spectacular, moonlike landscape, bandits operate in Afar and tourists must have armed guides.

Afar is also close to the disputed border between Ethiopia and archrival Eritrea, an area littered with land mines from numerous conflicts in the region.

The U.N., who have around 1,700 peacekeepers along the Ethiopian/Eritrean border, “stands ready to provide medical and logistical support to the rescue process.”

British investigators have examined the embassy cars. An embassy official said nobody was believed to have been in the vehicles at the time they were shot up.

Local police believe the group may have been taken by rebel gunmen and marched across the porous Ethiopian border into neighboring Eritrea. Eritrea has denied any involvement.

Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been strained since Eritrea gained independence from the Addis Ababa government in 1993 following a 30-year guerrilla war. The two countries fought a bloody two year border war that ended in 2000.